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Resolving disputes in a rapidly transforming society

Guards outside high-rise housing
It seems only the guards are around during the day at Beijing's high-rise housing complexes. (Connie Wu photos)
Tale of two cities: Brief glimpses of high-rise luxury; boxers in the neighborhood street

Driving range in Beijing
Golf courses and driving ranges are a perk for residents of Beijing's upscale neighborhoods.

BEIJING - What used to be one-story brick shacks are now high-rise residential complexes. As older neighborhoods are torn apart, towering high-rises known as "commodity housing" have taken their place, offering urban residents a higher standard of living as well as a modern lifestyle. However, most such commodity housing units sell for 700,000 yuan to over a million yuan (about $85000-$120,000), which the average Beijinger, who makes about 20,000-30,000 yuan a year, cannot afford. Instead, most Beijing residents continue to live in far more modest housing given to them by their work units. It is only a short bike ride from luxury neighborhoods, fully equipped with modern facilities like swimming pools, gyms and even golf courses, to the older and much more dilapidated communities. The drastic difference in the standard of living reflects the kind of inequality that exists within the city.

The physical and spatial arrangement of neighborhoods definitely affects social interaction. For example, the older and poorer a neighborhood is, the more people you see on the streets. Life in these traditional neighborhoods seems to be filled with leisure time as residents play Chinese chess and hold long conversations with one another in large groups. In such neighborhoods, it is common to see women walking around in their nightgowns holding half-naked babies, and men in their boxer shorts and tank tops patting their bellies while chatting with others. Such scenes reflect the intimate community relations that exist in traditional neighborhoods, where residents are comfortable enough to walk around in their underwear.

Modern apartment complex
These modern apartment blocks could fit into many an American city or suburb; so could the rushed, vacant lifestyle.

In the upper-class high-rise communities, such public behavior is considered “low suzhi,” or low quality. In the high-rise communities, high suzhi seems to be tied to modern facilities that offer yoga classes, to men and women in business attire, and to children who take piano lessons and recite poetry in English. In such neighborhoods, life is rushed. Members of this new class of urban bourgeoisie rush off to work in the morning in their private cars, and rush back in the evening, only to lock themselves away in their private residential units. During most of the day these communities are empty, which makes finding people to talk to extremely difficult. Sadly, I was only able to harass a few security guards for a quick chitchat.

As I looked up from the empty streets to the towering high-rises, I wondered how a mediation committee intended to maintain community relations could possibly function here. In traditional neighborhoods, with their limited living space and high population density, conflicts over public space are common. But such problems rarely arise in upscale neighborhoods built on the notions of privacy and individualism.